The modern working world is increasingly diverse, and in situations where diversity prevails, people can sometimes fall back on inaccurate assumptions about others. This is where the difference between stereotypes and generalizations comes in.
According to our definition here at TMC-Berlitz, stereotypes are judgmental beliefs about a group or members of a group and are thought to be accurate, without any room for interpretation. People who hold stereotypes don’t want to hear any contrary information. Generalizations, meanwhile, are non-judgmental. Generalizations recognize their inherent limitations and allow new information in. They are devoid of judgment and open to change.
In the field of cultural competence, we promote embracing generalizations, illustrated above by an open door, as opposed to stereotypes, depicted in the image as a closed door.
However, throughout our consulting work, we’ve noticed that sometimes stereotypes can be made with a positive intent. This doesn’t mean they are harmless, however. Take the examples below in which a supervisor has positive-seeming stereotypes about two of his employees:
• Natalie is a mother, so she shouldn’t be offered to attend that conference out of town because she probably won’t want to be separated from her family over night.
• The spreadsheet is very complicated and involves a lot of numbers, so I’m going to give it to Hayeon to work on, because Asians are good at math.
Being an attentive mother and being competent in math are both highly accepted traits in many cultures of the world. For that reason, Natalie and Hayeon’s supervisor might not feel bad about making assumptions having to do with those traits. However, they can be damaging, both to the person about whom the stereotypes are being made, and the company as a whole. Natalie may be eager to attend a conference and may be able to find babysitting for her children. Hayeon may not be good at math and may be offended that her supervisor assumed she was. Making stereotypes about Natalie and Hayeon’s needs and abilities can cause them to miss out on opportunities or to feel alienated, both of which can lead to disengagement at work.
The chance to go to an out-of-town conference or to tackle a particularly complex project should be given to the person who has the best experience and skill set, not based on non-relevant factors such as parental status or race.
By approaching situations with an open mind and a willingness to change our thoughts about certain traits, we set ourselves up to create inclusive, respectful and high-functioning workplaces.Back to Navigating Culture Blog